Tensions in the Persian Gulf escalated dramatically after Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. The Americans threatened military strikes in retaliation but pulled back at the last moment, after senior officials in the Pentagon had warned that such a response could endanger American troops deployed throughout the Middle East. The June 20 incident was preceded by a series of different attacks on oil tankers operating in the Strait of Hormuz, all of which were allegedly sponsored by Iran. Although the breakout of immediate hostilities seems to have been halted for now, saber-rattling by senior members of the Trump administration and Iran’s announcement that it plans to breach the limit set on its enriched uranium, means that war in the region still remains a realistic possibility.
The ongoing crisis presents a unique opportunity for Pakistan to mend its troublesome relationship with Iran, which has deteriorated considerably in the years following the I979 Iranian revolution. The Iranians have long viewed Pakistan with suspicion, owing to the latter’s intimate relationship with the Saudis, whereas Islamabad remains concerned over Iran’s courtship of India and the development of Chabahar port as a possible alternative to its own Chinese-funded Gwadar project. Another obstacle to greater cooperation between the two Islamic Republics has been the recurring issue of cross-border terrorism, with both sides accusing each other of not doing enough to curtail terrorist networks operating on their side of the border. While Pakistani government and military officials have largely refrained from making public statements against Iran, the response from Tehran has been far more hawkish. In the aftermath of the February 2019 bomb attack on an IRGC bus in Iranian Balochistan, General Qassem Soleimani of the Quds Force vowed retaliation and even went as far as threatening a possible military strike inside mainland Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Tehran in April signaled another attempt by Islamabad to normalize relations and came at a time when Pakistan itself was facing a plethora of internal and external challenges. Pakistan’s economy is in a nose dive and the incumbent Khan government is accused by his political opposition of being a product of the deep state’s electoral maneuvering. Relations with India continue to remain tense and the Islamic State’s foray into South Asia is another cause for concern. Thus, Khan’s visit to Tehran offered Pakistan a rare opportunity to flex its regional clout, as it succeeded in easing tensions between the two countries. In an apparent demonstration of warming ties, Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif also visited Pakistan, seeking to garner Islamabad’s support to avert a war in the region. Pakistan’s historically close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies, as well as a record of extensive Islamabad-Washington contact, place the country in a unique position to exercise a mediator role in the Middle East.
Preventing another Middle East war and urging both sides to de-escalate is in Pakistan’s national interest. Owing to the deteriorating security situation in the Persian Gulf, Pakistan’s arch-nemesis India has deployed warships in the Gulf of Oman to protect its vessels transiting in the region. A prolonged period of tension in the Persian Gulf and further attacks on oil tankers might even prompt the Indians to consider a heavier naval presence in the area, which would in turn lead to Pakistan attempting to check the Indian move by deploying its own naval assets in the Gulf. Such a scenario greatly enhances the risk of an unintended Pakistan-India clash in the Gulf and raises the stakes further in an already hostile environment.
Another concern is that an American-Iranian conflict would have a significant domestic impact inside Pakistan. Being home to the world’s second largest Shi’ite population, Pakistan has carefully avoided engagements that would place it directly at odds with Iran. While resisting pressure from the GCC bloc, Islamabad opted for neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war and the ongoing Yemen conflict. In the event that a regional war does break out, Pakistan would face considerable pressure from its Shi’ite population to play a greater role in the conflict and bring hostilities to an end. At a time when Islamabad is receiving much needed financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, it appears unlikely that Pakistan would risk alienating its long-time ally. Domestically, Pakistan’s failure to act would be perceived by the Shi’ite population as amounting to collusion with Saudi Arabia and result in sectarian tensions surging.
In addition, Pakistan and Iran have of late begun to cooperate in Afghanistan. Both countries are active participants in the Kabul Process and were signatories of the 2018 Tashkent Declaration. Iran’s fast-growing engagement with the Taliban has also been productive. Senior Taliban officials now regularly visit Tehran for negotiations, leading to American accusations of Iran providing military support to the Taliban. An American-led attack on Iran and subsequent regime change in Tehran would most certainly derail the progress made in bringing about a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war. There is also no guarantee that a post-war Iranian government would be open to legitimizing Taliban political influence in Afghanistan and could even throw its weight behind other rival factions. Such a scenario is detrimental for Pakistan’s internal security as another full-blown civil war inside Afghanistan would result in a violent blowback and force Pakistan to take on an even greater role in the conflict.
A successful Pakistani drive for mediation would also provide Khan with much needed breathing space. Although the domestic policies of Imran Khan’s government have been heavily criticized, his clever handling of foreign policy matters has earned him praise. Khan’s decision to unconditionally release a captured pilot of the Indian Air Force, and his attempts at greater cooperation with Iran, are two such examples. As the political climate inside Pakistan heats up again and the country’s political opposition is threatening massive street protests, Khan could well push for greater Pakistani mediation in the Gulf crisis to improve his portfolio back home.
Ammad Malik is a defense and security analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. His work focuses on Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East and issues concerning military strategy.